Elf was nearly axed mid-production because of a potential lawsuit, it has been revealed.
The Christmas classic, released in 2003, stars Will Ferrell as an elf raised in the North Pole who discovers that he is actually human. But the movie was threatened by lawyers while it was being filmed, with one even suggesting it may not be allowed to be released.
As revealed in the Netflix documentary series The Holiday Movies That Made Us, lawyers became concerned that the film was too similar to a 1964 US TV special titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
“We got in trouble with clearance,” production designer Rusty Smith explained. “They got nervous that we had stolen too much … And all of a sudden we had lawyers in our midst. Lawyers with you on the set, lawyers with you in the art department.”
Awkwardly, Elf director Jon Favreau had been directly inspired by the special, which told the traditional Rudolph story using stop-motion animation. Favreau replicated the animation technique in scenes in Elf, and wanted the film’s colour palette to visually resemble the TV special.
Smith continued: “Lawyers [were] saying like ‘Where’s your reference? Where’d you get this idea? Where’d this come from?’... The producer came to me and said ‘The film might not be releasable.’”
In interviews, Favreau has explained that he deliberately wanted to make a “pastiche” of the Rudolph special, and the animated films made by Rankin/Bass. They were a prolific animation studio responsible for a number of animated Christmas TV specials in the Sixties and Seventies.
The Elf producers were ultimately able to work around any possible lawsuit, yet declined to reveal the specifics of the matter.
“Some fast legal work had to be done,” executive producer Cale Boyter says in the Netflix doc. “Thankfully we had some pretty smart people that could figure it out.”
Elf, which turned Ferrell into one of the biggest comedy stars of the 2000s, also features actors Zooey Deschanel, James Caan and Peter Dinklage. Favreau would go on to direct films including Iron Man and last year’s remake of The Lion King.